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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Amanda Meade

Editorial in the Australian that targeted ABC’s Louise Milligan was inaccurate and unfair, press council finds

The Australian newspaper is seen on a newsstand
The Australian Press Council says the Australian newspaper breached three general principles in a 2021 editorial that targeted ABC journalist Louise Milligan. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

An editorial in the Australian newspaper which targeted the ABC journalist Louise Milligan was inaccurate, unfair, lacked balance, caused unnecessary distress and was not in the public interest, the Australian Press Council has found.

The Murdoch broadsheet breached three of the general principles of the regulator when it accused Milligan, a former employee of the newspaper, of “bad, lazy, deceitful journalism” in the 2021 article headlined “Greatest enemy of truth is those who conspire to lie”.

The Australian argued Milligan was not the target of the editorial but the council found it was an “unavoidable conclusion” that the attacks about the ABC and poor journalism were aimed at the Four Corners reporter.

“Although the Council notes the publication’s comments that the editorial was not directed at the complainant, it considers that it is an unavoidable conclusion that she is associated with ‘bad, lazy, deceitful journalism’ and that she ‘lies’ and ‘dissembles’ on the basis that she is specifically named in the article; that she is an ABC journalist; that she was once employed at The Australian and the critical comments concerning her alleged work, habits and hubris,” the adjudication published in the Australian said.

The council said the editorial “that commented on the ABC and what it considers are the attributes of poor journalism” was likely to cause substantial offence and distress without a sufficient public interest justification.

The Australian’s editorial reminded Milligan – and her then executive producer at Four Corners, Sally Neighbour – that they had once worked for the paper and that their former colleagues had long memories about their “habits”.

Milligan, a multiple Walkley award-winning investigative journalist, left the paper when she was poached to work in television news at the Seven Network and Neighbour wrote extensively for the Australian about terrorism and Islamic extremism.

Although the editorial named both women only Milligan laid a complaint with the press council.

“Many senior people at the Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan,” the editorial said. The council said the statement was presented as a statement of fact and not merely an expression of opinion and was “unsustainable”.

“The council recognises the significant public interest in allowing an editorial to express robust views on matters of important public interest,” it said.

“However, the council considers that naming the complainant, an ABC journalist in an editorial that commented on the ABC and what it considers are the attributes of poor journalism, was likely to cause substantial offence and distress without a sufficient public interest justification.”

The council said the editorial “unfairly infers that such undesirable traits are associated with the complainant and her journalism”.

A former editor-in-chief of the Australian, David Armstrong, had worked with Milligan and he said at the time that he was “distressed” to read the editorial and the “heading and the final sentence are defamatory verbal abuse”.

The paper’s editor-in-chief at the time, Christopher Dore, strongly defended it internally but never commented on it publicly.

He lost his job in November after an incident at a Wall Street Journal event in Laguna Beach, California, where Rupert Murdoch’s top executives were present.

Milligan said the process had been “wearying” and took two years. “It was my decision alone to do it,” she said on Twitter/X. “It has demonstrated to me the Press Council needs proper public funding, unshackled from the publications it’s adjudicating.”

The press council is a self-regulatory body that is dominated by News Corp Australia, which has the majority of paying members. Guardian Australia is not a member.

The editorial was still live on the Australian’s website on Tuesday.

The ABC welcomed the press council decision.

Its managing director, David Anderson, said: “The ABC stands by Louise Milligan and the Four Corners team and the outstanding, high-quality journalism they continue to perform for the Australian public.”

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